Witnessing Democracy in Egypt
by Zachary Newell '99
I sit in a coffee shop in Alexandria in late May 2012, where I can see the Mediterranean Sea. There is a strange calm. Everything is shut down to mark the second day of presidential elections. Egypt will elect its first democratically elected president, and it is important that everyone in the country has a chance to participate. The man behind the counter is wearing an “I love New York” shirt. Two other men are arguing over their choice for president.
I came to Egypt in January 2012 after being awarded a Fulbright grant to teach for five months at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, or New Library of Alexandria, located on the Mediterranean coast about three hours north of Cairo. The Fulbright Program, according to its official website, was primarily designed to increase mutual understanding between the United States and other countries. Since its inception, the Fulbright Program has sent 45,200 scholars abroad and brought 46,800 visiting scholars to the United States. The program now operates in 155 countries.
For all the rumors over the years that Egypt is in a state of upheaval, the country and its people have shown both courage and humanity in resolving their affairs. I heard from many Egyptians a bit of hesitancy and embarrassment at the chaos caused by the revolution on Jan. 25, 2011. I cannot stress enough that I never saw—nor did my family or colleagues—the perceived instability as a hindrance in any way. I found Egyptians to be more than gracious. I always felt safe and comfortable asking for help, directions or even clarification about a political or religious matter. I felt even more warmth from my colleagues, who always made an effort to reach out to me and take the time to ask for my opinion. Most times I would defer, realizing that commenting on Egypt—its politics and religion—is not my place.
When I first arrived in Egypt, I was warned about the protests that were taking place outside the entrance to the library. I was concerned about the idea of protests at first, but many colleagues encouraged me to pay no attention. Egyptians, they told me, like an opportunity to be loud. My colleagues were generally a little embarrassed about the protests and the image that was being communicated to the rest of the world. Many of the locals have longed for a routine and normalcy in their daily lives. More than anything else, the people of Egypt want to be heard.
The May 2012 election narrowed 12 candidates down to two and left many Egyptians a little disillusioned about the remaining choices to be considered in the June runoff. I revisited the same coffee shop where I heard the political banter during Election Day, and the locals asked for my opinion: “Who do you like for president?” I respectfully declined to engage in the conversation. All I could do was sympathize with the difficult questions and outcomes of a democratic system.
More than six months after returning from Egypt—and witnessing our own bitterly contested presidential election—people still approach me to ask if I am relieved to be back in the United States. I understand where the concern comes from; the Middle East has a long history of unrest, but the United States has its own share of violence. I experienced more anxiety on a recent trip through Connecticut with my wife and kids, listening to breaking news stories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, than anything I experienced while living in Egypt. So perhaps a more appropriate question about my experience last spring in the Middle East would be, “Do you wish you were back in Egypt?”
There is something to be said for participating in another culture firsthand. Not only did I cultivate alliances and friendships, but I witnessed a modern Egypt celebrating the triumph of its revolution after holding its first free, democratic elections, even if that democracy is a bit tenuous against the backdrop of continued unrest in places such as Syria, Algeria and Libya. I was lucky to work in the fabled library at Alexandria, a center for learning, tolerance, dialogue and understanding, both regionally and globally. It is in this spirit I celebrated as a Fulbright scholar, among friends and colleagues across the world, seeking history and scholarship, and making lasting connections. I hope all of my friends and colleagues will continue to engage in the changes in the Middle East, however uncomfortable, knowing that change is predicated on currents of conversation and open dialogue.
Zachary Newell is a reference and instruction librarian at Salem State University near Boston. He was awarded a Fulbright fellowship last year to work in the arts and multimedia library at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where he conducted seminars and presentations on new technologies for organizing and retrieving information, and delivered lectures that explored a variety of themes in American art.